“IT WAS a bit of a pot-luck affair,” reflects trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni about the recording of Bhekisizwe, the debut album of his outfit the Amandla Freedom Ensemble, which landed late last year. “Somehow, all the stars just aligned.”
He’s not just talking about the generous way industry colleagues found short-notice studio time and supplemented instrumental resources, but also the lucky coincidence that united many of his regular SA bandmates for the show Song of Nongoma at the Soweto Theatre, at the same time as visiting saxophonists Briton Shabaka Hutchings and Swiss Ganesh Geymeier were also in town. Mlangeni had already decided he wanted to record, but he credits Hutchings with pushing him to take advantage of the powerful ensemble that was possible at that point.
The album’s title and its elegiac first track pay homage to the history that shaped Mlangeni and his music. His father was the lawyer and hit-squad investigator Bheki Mlangeni, assassinated by a booby-trapped tape recorder in 1990. Growing up in a serious, highly politicised family, the young trumpeter’s first exposure to music was not pop on the radio (though one senior cousin is popular music legend Babsy Mlangeni) “but hearing freedom songs at political meetings — and to some extent church music too”. His uncle was a sangoma; his aunt drummed for the chants. And then, returning from a trip to London not long before the fatal explosion, Bheki Mlangeni presented his son with “a small blue toy piano he’d bought for me in Harrods, which I immediately grabbed.”
But his father’s death “was a huge stumbling block for me emotionally and in many other ways”. He became listless and withdrawn, was sent for counselling “and then sometime in primary school things started becoming clearer through music. I joined the choir. One evening, I was watching the choral show Imizwilili on TV, and there was an orchestra — all those instruments. I didn’t know what they were called or anything but I said: ‘Yeah, that’s what I wanna do’.”
From learning recorder at primary school Mlangeni progressed to teaching himself trumpet from a method primer during his secondary years, until he was accepted by the National School of the Arts. Postmatric, he spent a year at Wits, and then transferred to the University of Cape Town, where he majored in composition.
Cape Town offered multiple opportunities to perform and learn outside college rehearsal rooms. Mlangeni remembers two with particular affection. The café-bar Tagore’s offered “really small fees, but it was a convivial atmosphere and you met everybody: [guitarist] Jimmy Dludlu, [pianists] Kyle Shepherd and Bokani Dyer, and especially [pianist] Hilton Schilder, who I’d say was one of my compositional influences.”
Composing was more directly developed during Mlangeni’s time with the Cape Goema Orchestra, whose leading light is veteran goema guitarist and orchestral composer Mac McKenzie. A CGO concert premiered the album title track, Bhekisizwe. “How many young composers get the opportunity to work with a 25-piece orchestra?” Mlangeni asks. “Mac helped me understand how to harness that, at a time when I needed to test my skills and shape something for an audience.”
Despite his qualifications and experience, Mlangeni says he has encountered surprise that “you guys can compose”, and constant stereotyping of township musical traditions. It irritates him. “I was born and raised in Pimville, but does that mean I must write and play in a certain way? Sure, much of my music is a homage to those who came before. Now, more than ever, there’s a need to understand ourselves and our history, and advance our stories and songs, in the face of a continuous onslaught of ‘culture from elsewhere is better; we’re not worthy enough’ … But we need to do that with work that interrogates how we handle musical colours, harmonies, improvisation, not with performances that are predictable and formulaic.”
That approach has characterised all the bands Mlangeni has led: the Native Groove Collective and the Tune Recreation Committee in Cape Town, as well as the Amandla Freedom Ensemble (AFE) in Johannesburg. All focus on original music, but the AFE, Mlangeni says, “puts particular emphasis on arrangements that expand the harmonic palette — but also get to people’s hearts”. Bhekisizwe’s 11 tracks represent an extended, painstaking process of composition, work-shopping, tryout and modification. “Material is work-shopped every time we perform it,” Mlangeni says. “We add, delete, re-harmonise, change keys even. And my compositions are now coming to a place where they aim to be much simpler. It’s all great to focus on altered chord changes and such, but if few people can play the music and few listeners can understand it, it doesn’t help to tell the story.”
Though that story is centrally about self-realisation, it’s not Mlangeni’s narrative alone. “As we build the band into a unit, we’re redefining the roles of all the musicians. For example, Ariel (bassist Ariel Zamonsky) isn’t just there to hold the beat but to find and contribute his own meaning to the music too.”
Though Bhekisizwe is still new on the shelves, Mlangeni is already looking towards future projects. He’s impatient with the way some musicians focus on venues and wait to be called for shows. In Cape Town he has already experimented with proactive self-organisation: taking music to new audiences through public performances at taxi ranks, schools and parks. “Jazz needs younger audiences. If that approach worked in Cape Town, it could work in Jo’burg too, with the right creative sponsorship.” Mlangeni plans to study social media marketing, to upgrade the promotional skills such initiatives will need.
And jazz for him is not a narrowly defined, closed box. He doesn’t rule out exploring other genres. “Every year my family holds a memorial for my father. There are ceremonies, music. I play, and sometimes my senior relative Babsy comments and advises me. It might be interesting to take those conversations further — another way of getting to know that part of my family better, as well as understanding his music more.”
Mlangeni’s next scheduled musical collaboration, though, will be with another veteran: drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, whose rhythms and textures propelled the bands he considers his muses, the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath.
Concerts are planned for The Orbit on February 11 and 12, contributing to a recording session that will weave jazz instruments, strings, voices and words into a further exploration of identity, a project titled Born to be Black. “It’s what we need to do,” Mlangeni says, “singing the songs we ought to be singing to create a soundtrack for our times.”